Letter from Kabul
'Afghanistan is beyond redemption'. No, not every country thinks like that
Sweden's Ambassador to Afghanistan, Tobias Thyberg finds his posting in Kabul the most meaningful in his career.
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My country Afghanistan has much to thank India for.
It is one of our largest benefactors, contributing to the development, reconstruction and educational opportunities in my country. India, too, provides military training to thousands of security personnel here and recently provided helicopters to our armed forces.
India and Afghanistan work hand in hand to help Kabul. (Photo: Reuters)
India works, however, hand in hand with other nations to help Afghanistan during this challenging period in its history. There has been much in the media recently about America's efforts to help secure peace here. Great Britain, too, is an important ally.
Less widely recognised perhaps is the part Sweden plays in this collaborative effort.
The nation is represented by Tobias Thyberg.
Sweden's Ambassador to Afghanistan is a polite, courteous and a soft-spoken man who is immaculately dressed in a dark suit and tie when I meet him in his diplomatic residence in Kabul.
I ask him if he wouldn't have preferred a somewhat less challenging posting and he smiled.
"I have served in India, Russia, the United States, Georgia and at the European Union at Brussels. So, this is my sixth foreign posting, and, for me, honestly, this has been the most meaningful of them all," he says.
Voicing his views, Ambassador Thyberg is a soft-spoken man. (Photo: Author)
"The issues that we face in Afghanistan are, for better or worse, of an existential nature: we are talking about peace versus conflict, poverty versus progress, climate-related disaster versus sustainable development. They couldn't be more important. That makes the job both challenging and rewarding."
In a country where security is such a challenge, the diplomatic community in Kabul is especially tightly knit, and Mr Thyberg sees much of his fellow ambassadors as friends and colleagues.
He makes a point, however, of getting out as much as possible and talking to ordinary Afghans.
The brave Afghans who try to keep regular life going each day. (Photo: Reuters)
He tells me: "I have rarely served in a country where my interactions with the citizens of that country have been as affecting as they have been here, and that's true of everyone, whether he or she has been part of a rural community I've met during my travels, or a member of the Cabinet. I am struck by the resilience, the humility and the openness and honesty of the people here, and, at the same time, their justified pride in their country."
Mr Thyberg got posted to Afghanistan in September last year and he knows how high the stakes are. Earlier this year, a bomb — placed in an ambulance — exploded outside his office killing and maiming scores of innocent people.
Afghanistan undergoes such dreadful violence on a regular basis. (Photo: Reuters)
“Incidents like that make the urgency of what so many of us are now trying to achieve here tangible, because the consequences of the ongoing conflict are increasing and accumulating over time,” he says.
Terrorist outrages always make the headlines, and give the impression to some observers overseas that Afghanistan’s position is beyond redemption. But Mr Thyberg says there are real reasons for optimism, not least in the Kabul Process Peace Talks, the ceasefire in June and the recently disclosed direct talks between the Taliban and the Americans. The country has also just held its delayed parliamentary elections, albeit with some bloodshed.
“Despite the difficult security situation, a substantial part of the Afghan electorate chose to exercise their vote in the parliamentary elections and that has to be good news," he says. "Of course, nobody should ever have to be killed or wounded as the result an election process, but the Afghan security forces did their outmost to prevent even more violence. They deserve recognition for that.”
I ask Mr Thyberg to outline Sweden’s objectives in Afghanistan. “My country has a long-term commitment to yours – politically as well as financially — that began in the early Eighties," he replies.
"We are especially keen on improving access here to good education, especially for girls. We have backed government efforts and individual organisations, such as the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, which works to compliment the initiatives of the government in this area. We are also focused on the least privileged citizens of Afghanistan, particularly people with disabilities. My government has financed various programmes to focus on the rights of disabled people and improve their life conditions.”
Mr Thyberg — in common with his fellow ambassadors — does not see failure as an option for Afghanistan — either for the country itself, or for the international community.
It is hard not to see his own commitment to it as an emotional one, as much as a professional one.
“I want to see in the not-too-distant future a political agreement which reconciles the various parties to the conflict in Afghanistan,” he says. “I want to see Afghanistan, too, on good terms with other countries in the region, such as Pakistan, Iran with the central Asian republics, so that, instead of being a area of competition, there can be economic cooperation and that will help Afghanistan to become a peaceful, stable country in the region.
The world owes Afghanistan's children a better future. (Photo: Reuters)
“I hope to see a dramatic improvement in the delivery of basic services, education and healthcare to the citizens of Afghanistan. I want to see above all things Afghanistan become a country at peace, a country in stable region which allows economic development and a country where the poor are helped to improve their situation. After all that its people have been through, they really do deserve this now.”